At Top Universities, Concern About Pentagon’s Innovation Strategy

By Eric Beidel
More than 300 universities conduct research on the Defense Department’s dime, and more than half of the Pentagon’s basic research grants go to scientists and engineers on college campuses.

The Defense Department often relies on academia to explore fundamental mysteries of science or to pursue high-risk projects that private industry tends to avoid. Basic research undertaken by academic institutions has helped create foundations for stealth aircraft, precision weapons, reconnaissance satellites, lasers and the Internet.

Researchers at several universities who were interviewed by National Defense said they are not concerned about funding cutbacks as of yet. By all accounts, the Pentagon’s $2 billion annual budget for basic research is safe for the time being. In addition, the Defense Department recently announced plans to make 32 awards totaling $227 million to academic institutions for basic research initiatives over the next five years.

But scientists nonetheless worry about the United States confronting an innovation gap in the defense and national security arenas.

The country’s involvement in two wars during the past decade has shifted much of the focus away from breakthrough discoveries and onto the speedy delivery of the next best thing to the battlefield.

Today’s security environment “requires adaptation, innovation and delivery on the timeline of weeks and months,” the Pentagon’s director of research and engineering Zachary J. Lemnios told a House Armed Services subcommittee earlier this year.

Scientists are concerned that short-term thinking will undermine the nation’s standing as a technology powerhouse. “The United States’ leadership in science and technology is at risk,” said Rick McCullough, vice president of research at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

In congressional testimony, McCullough described funding systems that were broken and rewarded low-risk endeavors. He provided examples of Carnegie Mellon programs that were delayed or stalled because the initiatives were deemed too risky to receive funding.

The university’s work on claytronics, or the ability to make programmable matter, has struggled. Another project that looks at using ubiquitous sensors and computers to monitor buildings, roads and bridges also has been left out to dry.

“If the idea is truly transformational then probability of success in obtaining funding is a problem,” he testified. “That is, you need results to get funded and you need funding to get results. One program manager’s response was if he were expected to report in one year how this research has contributed to our country, how can he take a chance on high-risk research?”

McCullough told National Defense that he believes the Pentagon realizes it is falling behind and has begun to take corrective action by spending more money on basic research.

It has always been more difficult for universities to win funding for early exploratory research, said Heather Manley, director for operations and business development at Texas A&M’s Institute for Innovative Therapeutics.

“It’s harder to justify because the results aren’t tangible,” said Manley, who came to A&M in August from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. While the demand has been for rapidly adaptable platforms, any solution has to be built on solid, sometimes high-risk, research. The discovery engine can’t break down, Manley said. The Internet is a classic example of “game-changing” technology that the Pentagon helped create, she noted.

Some universities have embraced the challenge of rushing technology to the battlefield. The 725 full-timers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute have half of their $200 million of annual work directly funded by the Defense Department. The institute does little basic research. In fact, it’s being asked to do more and more applied studies.

“We’ve got a high concentration of really good people that can work together in small teams to do things really fast,” said director Tom McDermott. “That’s been the trend the last several years. What can we get and how fast can we get it?”

GTRI researchers quickly developed an upgrade on a missile warning system for the Air Force’s F-16 fighter jet and A-10 close-air support aircraft. It took just 200 days to go from contract to installation.

The Pentagon has made an urgent call for technology to counter insurgencies. But McDermott wonders what will happen after U.S. forces leave Iraq and Afghanistan. Coming out of those wars means “heading into an era where we’ve got all this technology, now what are we going to do with it?”

McDermott doesn’t fear an innovation gap. He dreads a change in the way the Defense Department invests for the future. There is a growing effort to focus on fixed-price contracts, limiting flexibility with time and money, and ultimately ideas, he said. McDermott calls this approach “anti-risk and anti-research.”

Purdue University’s Assistant Vice President for Industrial Research John Schneider said despite healthy Pentagon funding for basic science, there are signs that resources could dwindle in the long term. Purdue took advantage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s innovation funds to keep efforts afloat during the recession. Purdue receives about $400 million for basic research each year.

“I’m concerned about what’s going to happen in three years,” Schneider said, after the stimulus money disappears. “[Researchers] are going to have to get back to applying for grants.”
Schneider noted that private industry has slashed in half its funding of academic research over the course of a decade.

Demographic shifts also are affecting how science and research are pursued, he said.

“Before you had a couple of young hot-shot engineer scientists solving problems for the military,” Schneider said. The paradigm is shifting from projects with single principal investigators to those overseen by large teams. These outfits may feature younger members who are not necessarily risk averse, but who want to see quick results, Schneider explained. “It’s a generational thing,” he said.

Ravi Bellamkonda, associate vice president of research at Georgia Tech, contends that there are larger issues at play in what he considers a declining state of innovation in the United States. He sees a growing influence from countries such as India and China, which produces 1 million engineers each year. Then he looks at funding opportunities and observes that the majority of the resources are set aside for incremental research with defined results — the Defense Department says it wants to do X, and researchers respond based on their ability to produce X. Not much is being done from scratch, Bellamkonda said. Additionally, top tier universities have poor funding mechanisms of their own, which leaves professors to live and die by the money they raise, he said.

Finally, Bellamkonda sees a paralyzing fear of failure.

“There’s not enough emphasis on breakthrough and transformation. People tend to take safer incremental projects,” he said. “But if there is no danger in failing, then the success is not that great.”

In other words, today’s researchers may need to employ more patience and trust to achieve the big payoff.

“It’s a good time to be a rat with cancer,” said Bellamkonda. “We haven’t done a good job of
funding really basic research. I don’t know if we have a coherent strategy to do basic science stuff.”

Universities handle about 60 percent of the nation’s basic research, according to “Universities in the U.S. National Innovation System,” a paper by Kent Hill, research professor in the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. Basic research does produce practical results, but it’s difficult to predict what they will be and when they will come, the author noted. And because private industry needs concrete commercial returns on investments, government support for fundamental research at universities becomes even more critical, Hill wrote.

The Defense Department accounts for about 10 percent of federally funded basic research in academia. The National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health pay for the bulk of it.

In the early 1980s, basic research accounted for 20 percent of the Pentagon’s science and technology spending. Now, it adds up to less than 12 percent, according to the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, an advocacy group that includes members from industry and academia.

“For over 50 years, America’s unique ability to improve the nation’s defense through innovation has spurred new technologies that have contributed to our nation’s national security and our economy,” the task force wrote in a study. Basic research supports military strength and troop safety, bolsters fields vital to national security and trains the next generation of scientists and engineers, the task force says.

Those scientists and engineers may be called upon to reach across traditionally drawn boundary lines in the future. The current Beltway buzz phrase is “public-private partnerships,” Manley said. She has observed an intensifying shift away from investigator-driven research and toward collaborations between government, industry and academia.

Cybersecurity may provide the perfect playground for these partnerships, McDermott said. Everyone, including the military, is rushing to add some form and definition to this never-ending domain. McDermott’s research organization already has begun tinkering around with capabilities for cyberspace. It’s an area that his small institution would have been locked out of during previous presidential administrations, he noted.

“It’s opened up the marketplace,” McDermott said. “Cybersecurity offers a huge space where big system primes, small companies and universities can all be players.”

Whether they actually play together remains to be seen, but breakthroughs are bound to happen. After all, McDermott said, everybody is taking risks when it comes to cyberspace.

Topics: Science and Engineering Technology

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